The Ongoing Battle over Photographs of the Enslaved at HarvardHistorians in the News
tags: slavery, photography, Harvard, art history
The photographs are about the size of a small hand. They’re wrapped in a leatherette case and framed in gold. From the background of one, the image of a Black woman’s body emerges. Her hair is plaited close to her head, and she is naked from the waist up. Her stare seems to penetrate the glass of the frame, peering into the eyes of the viewer. The paper label that accompanies her likeness reads: delia, country born of african parents, daughter of renty, congo. In another frame, her father stands before the camera, his collarbone prominent, and his temples peppered with gray and white hair. The label on his photo says: renty, congo, on plantation of b.f. taylor, columbia, s.c.
In 1850, when these images were captured, the subjects in the daguerreotypes were considered property. The bodies in the photographs had been shaped by hard labor on the grub plantation, where they’d spent their lives stooped over sandy soil, working approximately 1,200 acres of cotton and 200 of corn. Brought from the fields to a photography studio in Columbia, South Carolina, each person was photographed from different angles, in the hopes of finding photographic evidence of physical differences between the Black enslaved and the white masters who owned them. A daguerreotype took somewhere between three and 15 minutes of exposure time, and the end result was a detailed image imprinted on a small copper-plated sheet, covered with a thin coat of silver.
Louis Agassiz, a professor at Harvard, commissioned the portraits of Delia and Renty, along with those of other enslaved people, from the photographer Joseph T. Zealy. The daguerreotypes remained, all but forgotten, in the school’s Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology attic until an archivist found them in a storage drawer in 1976. Since then, these photos of Renty and his daughter Delia have been featured on conference programs, in presentations, and reproduced in books.
As photography has moved from the scientific novelty of Agassiz’s time to ubiquitous contemporary entertainment over the years, the art form has reflected society’s inequity. The rediscovery of the daguerreotypes and their use in revenue-generating materials in the present day have helped surface an ethical issue that has long accompanied images of Black people’s bodies: Their presentation and exploitation still, in many cases, outweigh individual ownership and autonomy.
While the provenance of the photos traces a line from a drawer at Harvard to a photographer in South Carolina, their story today also has roots in Norwich, Connecticut, home to Tamara Lanier, who claims to be the great-great-great-granddaughter of Renty. As a girl, Lanier’s mother told her about an ancestor named “Papa Renty.” She learned that he was a master of the Bible and that, as an act of defiance, he taught other enslaved people to read. According to the history passed down through her family, Renty got his hands on Noah Webster’s The Original Blue Back Speller, and after tending to crops in the fields, he would study the book at night.
Lanier would not start searching for the truth behind those stories until 2010, the year her mother died. She began a genealogical search for her ancestors. She also told an acquaintance, Richard Morrison, of her mother’s death and her own attempt at tracing her bloodline. Morrison, an amateur genealogist, took what Lanier told him and did some digging. He came up with a name: Renty Taylor. Morrison’s Ancestry.com search pulled up a photograph of Renty from 1850—one of Agassiz’s daguerreotypes. Further searches provided Lanier with information about Agassiz and Zealy and mentioned where she could find the original pictures: Harvard University. When she traveled to the school and viewed the images, Lanier was disappointed by their size, which resembled a deck of cards. There he was, the man who seemed larger than life in many of her mother’s stories, looking small and sad.
Seeing her ancestors in the archives at the university, Lanier felt the portraits were out of place. She believed that the images of Renty and Delia belonged to her. So on March 20, 2019, she filed a lawsuit against Harvard. In her lawsuit she alleges that the images of Renty and Delia are still working for the university, based on the licensing fees their images command. (In 2019, Harvard acknowledged that the images are not protected by copyright and that it charges only a $15 fee for a high-resolution scan.) Lanier requested that the university grant ownership of the daguerreotypes to her, pay her punitive damages, and turn over any profits associated with the portraits. “From slavery to where we are today, Black people’s property has been taken from them,” Lanier told me. “We are a disinherited people.”
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